Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pondicherry, Morning One

The best way to get photographers out of bed? Bribe them with the promise of a sunrise.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve in Chennai

Early on one of the coldest winter mornings yet, we left Delhi to go to Chennai. Look, cabin crew!

If you haven't recognised them already, they're from Indigo Airlines, pretty much the best-branded airlines in India. They all wore bright smiles and "Girl Power" badges, and our pilot was a woman. Their magazine looks right out of a Swedish design firm: simple, clean, and as much a treat to flip through as an Ikea catalogue.

Even their zippy staircase was cute! I mean, who wouldn't like to be a hot stepper?

The sky was a whole different story. I don't know if they specially arranged it for us to be greeted by miles and miles of perfectly sprinkled clouds, but that's what happened. And it was SO beautiful. I could see outer space from my plane seat. Imagine that. It was like 54 shades of blue.

Someone should write a book on that.

And then we landed and saw some of Chennai from the ground (and above). We had a food-tasting lunch at a yet-to-be-opened hotel. I didn't click too many pictures of the food because I  was too busy eating it (!), but there were: three colours of chicken tikkas, fresh watermelon juice, pepperoni pizza from a wood-fired oven, appams, two kinds of Malyali stew, prawn pad thai, melty chocolate cake with dulce de leche and ice-cream, and my favourite, key lime pie.

Everything was, needless to say, a-mazing.

Like the hotel! It's going to be a stunner when it's finally unveiled. Chennai, you watch out.

We also met a menagerie! Baby squirrels, pigeons, baby crows, a quail and the incredible lady who carries them across town on her bicycle (in baskets). One of my many favourite moments of the day by far was having a baby squirrel scamper up the length of my arm. Such big feet. So ticklish. I had to exercise all my restraint to not shake her off like a mad baboon.

But now I know what it would feel like to be a tree.

And we saw the sunset. Even with a construction site and its awful cranes in the foreground, it was absolutely breathtaking.

But that wasn't all! We also saw 1400 year-old temples, got blessed by at least five priests, listened to a stellar roadside Carnatic music performance...and ate, ate and ate. From hot fluorescent orange payasam eaten with spoons fashioned from a banana leaf bowl cheesecake with fresh strawberry stew. With an entire Marathi meal in between. And there were stories and wine (and midnight champagne!), and some of the people I care about most around me. A holiday couldn't start any better. Really.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ambling, Rambling

I got my camera this weekend! And we got to know each other a little bit better yesterday. That's the first step to falling in love, isn't it?

On my first walk around the city with my new baby, we saw a forest! With at least fifty-four kinds of trees. And bougainvillea, pretty as ever.

Then, we met a doggy! He nodded off more than a couple times as I went click-click-click too close too his snout. (Why they call it a dog's life, I will never understand.)

And then we saw Millie. (You've met her before!)

If I said I were overjoyed, it wouldn't be enough. After all the waiting, watching, saving and choosing, I have the fanciest camera I can dream of. And while I still have an insanely long way to go, and a huge amount to learn, I can finally fully say again: I'm happy.

(PS: Click these to view in large!)

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Durga Pujo

Last year, my friend Mega went to her village for Durga Pujo. She spent less than two weeks there, but oh, the stories! SevenM and I could only imagine the fun she'd had with all her cousins, running around without a second's rest to finish all the important tasks and pujas everyday. Each day was a different puja, each night a different topic of family discussion, and from what I heard, each moment was pure joy.

I, who have only a few strung-together memories of all my older cousins being in the same house at the same time, crave that kind of intimacy so badly. The last time we met was at my oldest cousin's wedding last year. It was the first time in many years that all of us were at the same place at the same time -- or even on the same continent. And it was an entirely different feeling, perhaps largely because we're all grown up now and the teasing made up for twelve years of being apart. It was like one weekend away from everything real on the planet. And I, who have largely renounced all usual forms of youthful entertainment, was so overjoyed that I danced. All weekend long.

From what I've heard of Durga Pujo, it sounds like exactly the above: one giant celebration of all the good things there are to share; friends, family, food, and fun. There's something wonderful about living with purpose, and for ten days (and many months prior), the lives of so many people are filled with something greater than themselves. Even for someone like me who doesn't know exactly what rite fits where, or why, the grand purpose is easy to identify. More than the rituals, it's what they bring together. Siblings who haven't met all year, cousins who wouldn't otherwise get any time to bond with their extended families, and grandparents, uncles, aunts, newborns, and entire communities of people who get together to celebrate what's most important to them: life. That much is beyond a facade of rituals, and it's easy to see.

Rangoli Sieve: dust the colour on top...
...and, voila!
I have grown up hating rituals. I think that's largely because I have never understood their functional purpose, or the direct link between them and the rewards they purportedly confer upon those who perform them. For me, rites, rituals and pre-scripted prayers have always been tied to the same sources of authority who standardise others' desires to pull them down and feel relatively more powerful themselves. Priests, heads, factory owners and so on who impose rules and obligations over those who aren't in a position to argue, just so that they can singlehandedly control the masses.

Rituals, thus, do not seem personal. Rites seem perfunctory. Prayer songs lack flavour. It is because they are made to convince the masses that their desires are not their own but filterable by bald, forehead-painted beings in saffron togas. They are made to convince the millions that there is no direct line from them to their own, individual gods, no means of personal conversation with their innermost self and whatever they may believe in. And that kind of imposition, I can't stand.

But there are moments of a different kind of clarity sometimes, where my mind accepts that there may be another purpose to elaborate rituals. There are moments when my mind accepts that although I may not agree with their supposed aims, they do serve the greater purpose of bringing people together in a way that unites their humanity at a very core level.

The Shiv Mandir

This is simple enough to explain. When you lay your doubting self to rest and yield completely to whatever god-force you believe in, something happens. Something changes. When you do it with a crowd of people, loved ones and strangers, something bigger happens. It is not that you are all brainwashed into believing that there is one and only one way to do things, but that by doing the same thing together at once, you divest it of its inert symbolism and allow yourself to fully delve into being one with the forces around you. You become part of your actions, and by that, the actions themselves lose meaning to you, and the oneness with them becomes paramount.

It is this feeling of oneness that makes rituals useful. It is this feeling of being the same, having the same hurdles, the same causes for joy, and the same sadness as others that knits humanity together, or keeps you and me sane. Burdens do lighten when you feel that someone understands your troubles. Happiness does increase manifold. And fast-flowing rivers do seem traversable. For this reason, and perhaps this reason only, I am willing to accept that there is more to doing the motions than I have suspected all along. And today, while pandal-hopping, this is exactly what I saw.

At the Kali Mandir

Adults dancing in fairgrounds, on top of trucks decorated with paper goddesses, in balconies with their parents looking out at said trucks. Babies eating, screaming, sleeping. Married women, their sarees rich cream and red, red, everywhere red; from the part in their hair to the soles their feet. Trays in their hands, hopes on their lips, prayers in their hearts. Edging slowly closer towards the gods they have been conversing with their whole lives. Gods who are as much a part of their thoughts as the sofas are at home in their parents' drawing rooms. Having to wait in line to paint these gods' foreheads is a study of its own in meditation.

Detail on a Pandal
Detail on a Wall
Looking out from behind a lens and through the rich conflux of sounds that comes together when lots of Indian people are together in a large space, I saw just that. Everyone was here, enjoying to their own degrees, connecting with their god in their own way. Behind all the ululating and veryspecificwayofdoingthings, there were thoughts and feelings and hopes and lots of gratitude being offered. And each prayer was pure and sacred and equally important. Each person was too. And that is as much as we can wish for.

Shubho Bijoya Dashmi, everyone!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Saturday, August 4, 2012


Sometimes, we lose ourselves, and our thoughts become like spools of ribbon unrolled from between someone's hands; beautiful, but all over the place.

It is then that we need something that we are used to to remind us where we are going. In my case, this is photography. When I am lost and I don't know where I am going, the feel of a camera in my hands brings me right back to my comfort zone. Through the viewfinder, I can see more clearly where I am, and what I want to take from it when I leave. There's no use being somewhere or doing something if you don't let it become a part of you are. If you don't learn from it and embrace it as your own. And if you don't become a bigger, better person because of it.

Since my camera was stolen, I've felt a profound lack of purpose. Though photography is not all I am, it is a large part of who I have become. And without my camera, I feel like a poet without paper, or a naval captain without a map. And though I have plenty of other things to do that put me in a comfortable place, for a long time, the feeling of ambling in the dark hadn't quite gone away.

On vacation to Thailand, I stepped out one morning, camera in hand. With a new place to explore and lens to see it through, I finally felt like I was home. Here are some photos from that trip.

The view from the apartment we were staying at.

Like any other city, Bangkok is full of contrasts.

It has old-school pubs...

...and newer, flashier bars.

(And temples outside every establishment.)

It has gardens and trees...

...and lots of ACs.

LG means "Life's Good", right?

It has magnificent skyscrapers that dissolve into the clouds...

...and shabby walls that turn into cul-de-sacs.

There are boys...

...and girls, and poverty is plenty

but so are smiles.

And there's always enough good food to share.

A street hawker ready for breakfast
A street hawker ready for hungry attackers - Aww, Dad!

The best and freshest coconut ice cream stall at the Chatuchak weekend market. Served in a coconut shell with pumpkin, peanuts, sweet corn and sticky rice in three colours!

So think about it, 

and plan a trip to Thailand.

Because at the end of the day, it's beautiful.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Seven Cities

Pictures from last week. They deserve to go up with a long post detailing how lucky I am to live in the seven cities that make up Delhi. But history is too long and historical puns are a bit...old (ha!) so I'll just try to stick with mostly pictures instead.

Still, a short introduction. You didn't think I was going to let you jump in to a (monumental) bunch of randoms, did you?

On either side of the Qutub complex (and most of the city, really), there are treasures to be found. The first of the two we discovered that day was Adam Khan's Tomb, also known as Bhoolbhulaiyaa (literally: a maze you can get lost in). It is rumoured that a wedding procession once got lost in its corridors, and you can easily imagine them losing their way in the dense forest that surrounds it, even in daylight.

Details on Adam Khan's tomb, Mehrauli

Planes roar overhead, and a city rushes past on three sides, but the seconds stand still when you look out at the Qutub Minar in the distance. Perhaps the only way to not get lost is to keep sight of it, marking its presence as the centerpiece in the crown of Mehrauli. Part of its charm lies in how it pops out of nowhere, suddenly visible in a sea of foliage in parts of South Delhi. It reminds you that you are in a city built generations ago, that you are very much a part of a history that you may have studied about. And it reminds you that rulers, too, were people, each wanting to build upon the successes of the last, each wanting to leave his mark in time.

Boys at Adam Khan's tomb, Mehrauli

The Qutub Minar, Mehrauli's crown gem

A little bit of the past, a little bit of the present. Adam Khan's tomb, Mehrauli

From Bhoolbhulaiyaa, we drove to the Mehrauli Archaeological Park. I've driven past this place too many times without really knowing that it existed. If you're in Delhi, or planning to come visit (!), it's worth the effort it takes to come out here. Seriously. And it's free! So you can enter multiple times for short visits, or come on a day when you have ample time - and a picnic hamper - on hand.

A time to rest, a time to reflect, Mehrauli Archaeological Park.

A tomb with a view?

Archway to the wild. This is where I heard about how King Humayun fell to his death down the steps. Though maybe that's not my favourite story to share in a place with no railings.

Or up here on this ledge.

The Mehrauli Archaeological Park; a place to come on your own...
...or with a friend.

...or just to watch the planes fly by.
You've seen the pictures, now go, discover it for yourself. There's tons (more) to see!